Time to get rid of the "Complete Streets or bust" mindset

Alex Baca is a Strong Towns member and writer who's sharing a guest article today about the need for safer, slower streets.

We build roads for the act of driving. As a result, we rarely build streets, which are meant for people. (More on the difference between a road and a street here.) 

When the easiest way for people to get to where they need to go is to drive in their personal vehicle, the places we live suffer. It is not physically or geometrically possible to create space to accommodate the moving and the parking of a car for everyone, all of the time, and so our towns and cities spread out, making us and the cities we live in poorer. Furthermore, speeding is aided by the act of driving and abetted by the design of our roads. Both are at odds with safety: There’s a 15 percent crash risk and 5 percent fatality risk when driving at 20-25 miles per hour. That jumps to a 55 percent crash risk and 45 percent fatality risk when driving at 30-35 miles per hour. Fast-moving cars are the problem and that’s why we have to slow them down.

A Complete Street design with designated spaces for bike users, cars, pedestrians and transit (Source:  Crandall Arambula )

A Complete Street design with designated spaces for bike users, cars, pedestrians and transit (Source: Crandall Arambula)

One way to slow cars down is to design a complete street. When we talk about complete streets, we usually mean Complete Streets — the proper-noun version, of which Smart Growth America and its in-house National Complete Street Coalition can be generally regarded as the progenitor. Complete Streets, the proper-noun version, includes both the design of a street itself to equitably accommodate all users — pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and drivers — as well as the implementation of policies that can compel municipalities to install Complete Streets, instead of Regular Streets. You’ve likely seen a rendering of a Complete Street before (see the image on the right).

Smart Growth America has done a great deal of work to integrate Complete Streets into our vocabulary and local-level policy, with some good results. Since 2006, 1,337 municipalities have adopted some sort of Complete Streets policy. As a result of this, a great number of elected officials and administrators think that a go-to way to create safe places for all people is — you guessed it — a Complete Street. That’s certainly better than the alternative — stroads:

A typical stroad (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

A typical stroad (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

But nothing is a panacea, and Complete Streets possess a few qualities that keep them from being the best method for slowing down cars in all situations. Most significantly, they’re often expensive and they take time to construct. Another challenge with Complete Streets is that, while many cities have an official Complete Street-style policy on the books, it’s often ignored.

That’s what happened in Cleveland, where I live. Passing our Complete and Green Streets ordinance in 2011, and establishing a typology plan, was a great achievement for local advocates, but this 2014 recap, which found the impact of the ordinance wanting, is still largely accurate.

Complete Streets can be worth the cost and time. The return on Complete Streets is greater than the return on typical stroad projects, so cost and time — and whatever politicking is required to make them a reality — are not reasons to not build Complete Streets. However, as a result of building Complete Streets in real life, we’ve ended up building a funny binary in our brains and in our discourse. There’s an overarching sentiment that roads are either for cars and their drivers, or, to become streets, roads must be massively overhauled to account very separately for every possible user.

This binary essentially says that in order to have safe streets, we must build Complete Streets or bust. In a universe where funding for grade-separated bike lanes alongside bioswales rains down from the sky, “Complete Streets or bust” would be a reasonable viewpoint. But our municipalities are increasingly asked to do more with less; in addition, sometimes roads are so needlessly unpleasant and needlessly unsafe that something should be done immediately, rather than waiting for the lengthy planning process that Complete Streets typically require. “Complete Streets or bust” can result in great long-term plans but stunted short-term, affordable approaches.

A section of Lorain Avenue that could stand to be a lot more people oriented and a lot less car-centric. (Source: Google Maps)

A section of Lorain Avenue that could stand to be a lot more people oriented and a lot less car-centric. (Source: Google Maps)

Cleveland’s Lorain Avenue cycletrack, which has been in the planning stage in one way or another for the better part of a decade, was recently awarded $6.1 million in federal transportation dollars from our metropolitan planning organization, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. Lorain is a potholed thoroughfare on which drivers blast through lights and pass on the right-hand side; it also has a smattering of great local businesses that would, no doubt, benefit from the economic benefits of walkability.

The ten-foot-wide, protected Lorain Avenue cycletrack will be awesome — in 2022 when it is installed. In the intervening four years, there are no plans for a more humble DIY bike lane or improved pedestrian crossings. Though it will eventually be a great street, “eventually” does not mitigate the fact that being on Lorain in anything besides a car, in a word, sucks. This is partly a result of the “Complete Streets or bust” binary. Because we know that cars are the problem and that walkability is something of a cure, planners, politicians, and citizens should traffic more frequently in the space between roads and Complete Streets by simply slowing down cars with whatever resources are available to them at any given moment.

In some cases, that does mean deliberately removing spaces for cars to create new spaces for people, whether they’re on foot, on bike, using a mobility device, waiting for a bus, or simply spending time in a public space. It’s easy to say that there isn’t room to do that, but — though it may be politically unpopular — lanes for parking and lanes for driving are there for the taking as much as anything else. Repurposing space from the single-use purpose of driving or parking is both worthwhile and in some cases utterly necessary to build productive, people-oriented places.

A temporary bike lane helps narrow a street and create safer transportation options (Source:  Bike Long Beach )

A temporary bike lane helps narrow a street and create safer transportation options (Source: Bike Long Beach)

But in other places, particularly in cities like Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, or Detroit, there’s plenty of space to play with. These post-industrial cities are massively overbuilt for their current populations, which means that it would be devastatingly easy to set up a parking-protected or flex post-delineated bike lane, throw in some street furniture to create an instant public space, or lay down some paint to highlight a pedestrian crossing. Janette Sadik-Khan executed all of this and more in New York City, where eight and a half million people had the potential to complain about change. There’s no excuse for Rust Belt cities not to give these kinds people-friendly modifications a shot; I’m particularly excited for the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency’s (NOACA) forthcoming infrastructure library, which I hope will encourage northeast Ohio municipalities to try this stuff out and perhaps be convinced to make car-slowing modifications permanent.

Regardless of how little or how much space your municipality is working with, all modes — the modes that contribute most greatly to a prosperous, accessible, and safe community — thrive when cars are slowed down. Additionally, the carrot of options-that-aren’t-driving isn’t enough to get people not to drive; driving itself needs to be disincentivized. Eliminating parking minimums and charging the true cost of driving and parking are strategies that fit neatly alongside slowing down cars, all of which, in turn, are likely to result in a greater adoption of walking and biking.

We need to orient ourselves to slowing down cars. This means presenting a united front. It’s not bikes versus buses, buses versus walking, or walking versus bikes. Those are false and silly dichotomies given that we are all pedestrians at some point in our trip; our built environment should respect that. It’s the affordable options versus the thing that we know to be categorically costing our cities millions: cars. The good stuff doesn’t proliferate without slowing down the cars, and you don’t need Complete Streets to do that. Complete Streets can be works of art, and communities deserve that investment when and where it’s truly needed. But we could do well to explore simpler alternatives and sketch out workable prototypes in the meantime.

About the Author

Alex Baca has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She’s written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Greater Greater Washington, and City Observatory. She's been a member of Strong Towns since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @alexbaca.